Environment

12 Ecologically Sustainable Countries and Why They Should Be Admired

As Earth’s resources fall into ecological deficit, it’s time to inspect our global green policies.

With last week's news that Earth’s resources have slipped into an "ecological deficit" for the rest of 2014, many countries around the world have come under scrutiny for taking more from nature then their own ecosystems can supply.

What exactly is this ecological debt? Essentially, it means we have used up all the planet’s natural resources available for an entire year—think deforestation, soil erosion and carbon dioxide emissions—so now we’re running a deficit. In other words, human consumption has exceeded our planet’s capacity to regenerate. The calculations are based on dividing the amount of ecological resources the planet is able to provide in a year by humanity’s demand and multiplying it by 365.

It is now estimated that 86% of the world's population live in countries that require more from nature than their ecosystems can provide. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everybody were to live like Americans, it would take four Earths to support the global population. The U.S. was ranked 33 on the 2014 environmental performance index (EPI). Consequently, several countries have begun to adopt the ecological footprint model, which demonstrates the energy and resources consumed in
 each country per person to raise awareness and educate populations about resource demand.

In the interest of curbing our own ecological overspending, here’s a list of 12 countries with ecologically sustainable policies.

1. Iceland. Iceland scores high on the EPI for its commendable sustainable development policies on climate change, for limiting greenhouse gases and for its clean energy economy which has been a magnet for foreign industrial investments with regards to modernizing aluminum smelters.

Iceland is renowned for transforming its energy system so that 100% of its electricity production as well as all its house heating is now provided by domestic renewable energy resources of hydroelectric power (thanks to its abundance of rivers) and geothermal reserves. It also has low air pollution, high water quality and runs hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses in the capital of Reykjavik, increasing its sustainability. The country’s greenhouse agriculture has also diversified the farming sector enabling the country to enjoy the domestic production of tomatoes, cucumber and peppers.

2. Switzerland. Switzerland topped the 2014 EPI list for its ecological and green policies, even though it is “resource constrained” by virtue of its fenced-in geographical location. But thanks to some innovative environmental management practices, Switzerland has become one of the most sustainable nations in the world in the areas of climate change, biodiversity and habitat protection. Over the past five years, the Swiss introduced 15 regional parks with two additional national parks underway, scoring higher than any other country for protected terrestrial areas. It also houses the densest rail network in Europe and provides free recycling services while charging for routine garbage collection.

Thirty-one percent of the country is covered in forests, which provides a lucrative timber industry creating hundreds of thousands of jobs —most Swiss homes are constructed of wood. More than half of its domestic electricity production comes from hydropower plants and another 40% from nuclear power. In 2013, it reset its goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, Huffington Post reported.

3. Costa Rica. This tropical wildlife haven is one of the most ecologically sustainable countries in the world, thanks to its renowned rainforest conservation programs and the government’s dedication to preserving its forest and water systems—25% of the land is protected as reserves and national parks. According to the United Nations, Costa Rica produces over 90% of its electricity through renewable means such as hydroelectric, geothermal and wind power.

The country also uses the capital from its vehicle stamp duty, gas tax and energy fees toward natural resource management and air water protection programs. The ministry’s focus on environmental management has allowed the nation to improve its sustainability performance and maintain some 10,000 species of plants and 800 butterfly species, according to Carbon Pig. The country supports nearly 5% of the world’s biodiversity despite its size and even compensates landowners for protecting their trees and planting new ones.

4. Sweden. Sweden scores top marks as an ecological-friendly performer particularly in the areas of environmental health, forestry and water management. Last year it was ranked the most sustainable country in the world by sustainability investment firm Robecosam because of its use of renewable energy sources, low carbon dioxide emissions and green government policies. According to the International Energy Agency, 44% of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources.

The Swedish government is composed of numerous ministries which are each tasked with enforcing clean energy sources, carrying out green-friendly public transportation in their rail networks and ensuring high quality healthcare services. The country also charges a carbon tax to discourage oil use. Last year, the Swedish government set an ambitious goal of phasing out fossil fuels by 2020 and having zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

5. Luxembourg. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world with the smallest population, Luxembourg prides itself on its ecological sustainable policies. In the 2014 EPI, the country scored 100% on access to drinking water and sanitation and took in second place overall on the environment performance index. It also achieved the Convention on Biological Diversity’s international target of protecting 17% of terrestrial habitats, Huffington Post reportedPolicymakers approved its national plan for sustainable development in 1999, which has been highly effective in monitoring sustainable development indicators.

Luxembourg has also been commended for establishing a program to subsidize renewable energy. Recently this month, it increased its subsidies for green energy including biogas and solid biomass in a bid to work toward long-term future of certain hydro and biogas installations.

6. Germany. While Germany’s renewable energy transition program Energiewende has been criticized for extravagant costs on the economy and recent surge in greenhouse gas emissions as the country phases out nuclear energy, the Germans set a new record on green energy in the first half of 2014 by producing 28.5% of the country's energy entirely from renewable sources, Time reported. Germany, which is considered Europe’s green leader, has undergone a massive shift in the way it produces energy as it sets out to become powered entirely on solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy sources. The country also received top marks in the environmental performance index for water quality and access to sanitation and waste.

7. Cuba. Due in part to embargo restrictions, Cuba had to fend for itself developing sustainable architecture and agriculture, which began in the early ‘90s after the country passed a law which started a lengthy process dedicated to environmental performance. Cuba was the only country in the world rated as having sustainable development in 2006 by the World Wildlife Fund Living Planet report, because it met the two underlying criteria of the Human Development Index and the ecological footprint, Carbon Pig reported.

The government’s effective and persistent management of natural resources over the years have led to its status today as one of the world’s most ecologically sustainable countries. Cuba is also home to Goldman Prize winner Humberto Ríos Labrada, a scientist and biodiversity researcher who worked with farmers to increase crop diversity and develop low-input agricultural systems which shifted Cuba’s dependency on chemicals toward sustainability, Tree Hugger reported.

8. Colombia. Colombia is considered the second most biologically diverse nation globally and is home to 10 percent of the world’s species. The country came under criticism in the early 2000s for its high rate of deforestation, losing some 200,000 hectares of natural forest a year. In recent times, however, Colombia has become a leader in ecologically sustainable development with its fuel-efficient mass transit and the government's commitment to increased ecosystem restoration projects such as erosion control, biodiversity recovery and eradication of exotic species. 

This month, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that Colombia’s Inirida Fluvial Star, the world’s most important wetlands, will now be protected from mining threats thanks to the government’s strong conservation and advocacy efforts.

9. Singapore. Singapore’s emergence as a sustainable development leader sprang from having to cope with a congested population of over 5 million in a tiny 671-square-kilometer radius land mass. This highly urbanized country has been forced to focus on its resource consumption by undertaking aggressive and long-term land use planning measures, making the most progress in terms of climate change and energy regulations, Huff Post reported.

Singapore has committed itself to recycling 80% of its waste by 2030 in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, which sets several green targets including a 35% improvement in energy efficiency and 80% of its buildings certified as green. Singapore also scores exceptionally high on the 2014 EPI when it comes to air quality control, sanitation and wastewater treatment. Unfortunately, the country is one of the worst offenders when it comes to biodiversity and habitat protection.

10. France. Some may be surprised to see France make this list in light of its controversial nuclear program. Yet, in terms of climate change, the cultural capital ranks highly for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions through its nuclear power energy program, which does not produce any carbon emissions. 

During his election campaign last year, Francois Hollande called to reduce nuclear power to 50% of France’s supply by 2025. A new law on energy transition announced earlier this month has set ambitious targets to increase renewable energy to 32% by 2030, reduce CO2 emissions by 40% and consumption of fossils fuels by 30% by 2030. France’s stringent legislative policies to keep its air quality in check are also commendable: Paris banned half of all cars over air pollution fears in March.

11. Norway. Like many of the Nordic countries, Norway’s progressive environmental legislation and policies have made it one of the most sustainable nations globally. To date, the country has donated $1.6 billion to global rainforest conservation and is the largest foreign donor to tropical rainforests. The Climate and Pollution Agency upholds a wide-ranging database of environmental performance indicators with information on its environmental progress. Yet, despite a carbon tax, Norway reported a rise in carbon emissions over the past 20 years prompting a renewed commitment by the country to developing an economy-wide energy efficiency strategy and also reviewing its transport taxes and exemptions, according to the OECD

12. Finland. Finland is one of the most sustainable developed countries in the world due to its massive biological capacity and abundance of forests, which luckily service a very small population. The country is one of only a handful where its overall consumption of resources is smaller than production per capita, according to a recently released report by Helsinki Times. In 2014, Finland hosted the ninth European Conference on ecological restoration with a focus on its effective ecosystem services and land use policies.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.